“I used to think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story of suffering is so extreme, so rare, improbable, and unusual,” said Ray Ortlund in a recent sermon. “I don’t think that anymore. Now I think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story is so common and typical.”
I suspect that Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher of the 1800s, would have agreed. Zack Eswine’s book Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression is a gift in a world in which suffering is so pervasive, both for the depressed and those of us who have a hard time understanding why depression is so hard.
The Suffering of Spurgeon
Spurgeon was unique. He was one of the first megachurch pastors ever. He was British, Victorian, and Baptist. He was uniquely gifted and accomplished. He was renowned for his quick wit and sense of humor. Yet, he also suffered with poor health and recurring depression.
In October of 1856, Spurgeon preached at Surrey Hall to a crowd thousands when a prankster yelled, “Fire!” In the ensuing panic, seven died and twenty-eight were left seriously injured. Spurgeon, only 22 years old, was ten months into his new marriage, and one month into parenting twin boys in a new house full of unpacked boxes. “The senseless tragedy and the public accusation nearly broke Charles’ mind,” writes Eswine, “not only in those early moments but also with lasting effects.”
As a result, Spurgeon knew what it was like to suffer. He could say:
I have endured tribulation from many flails. Sharp bodily pain succeeded mental depression, and this was accompanied both by bereavement, and affliction in the person of one dear as life. The waters rolled in continually, wave upon wave. I do not mention this to exact sympathy, but simply to let the reader see that I am no dry-land sailor.
Because of this, Spurgeon is qualified to help us. Switching metaphors, Spurgeon compared himself to someone who has been in the dark dungeon, and knows the way to bread and water. He is able to help both those of us who have encountered depression, and those of us have a hard time understanding what it’s like.
A Friend for Sufferers
“The fact that such a prominent Christian pastor struggled with depression and talked so openly about it invites us to friendship with a fellow sufferer,” writes Eswine. Depression is horribly lonely; Spurgeon’s Sorrows is a reminder that while the feelings of loneliness may persist, we are not alone. It is a relief to read a book that describes depression and speaks truth, but without glib answers. It’s more of a travel guide about someone who has been there too.
While there are no easy answers for the depressed, there is company. “Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion too,” said Spurgeon. Other great Christians also struggled with depression. “You are not the first child of God who has been depressed or troubled…Do not, therefore, think that you are quite alone in your sorrow.” Others may not understand your depression, but God does, and he is compassionate.
A Help to Friends of Sufferers
For those who have never been depressed, it’s hard to understand the sufferings of the depressed. Ironically, Christians can sometimes be the least prepared to understand or help. Spurgeon’s Sorrows helps us here too. Depression is “neither a sign of laziness nor a sin,” Eswine writes, “neither negative thinking nor a weakness…No saint or hero is immune.” Having never experienced depression ourselves, we should be slow to judge. “We should feel more for the prisoner if we knew more about the prison,” said Spurgeon.
Spurgeon also helps us understand that Christians can continue to struggle with depression. “We do not profess that the religion of Christ will so thoroughly change a man as to take away from him all his natural tendencies.” Because of this, “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace.” Depression is a “misfortune not a fault,” and therefore it does not merit our condemnation.
Spurgeon helps us understand how dark things can get. “I wonder every day that there are not more suicides, considering the troubles of this life,” he said. Indeed, he believed that some miseries we experience are worse than death. Spurgeon reasoned with those who felt suicidal, believing that while suicide is not the unpardonable sin, the temptation should be resisted. Still, Eswine says, “We must take great care before judging someone who tries to overcome miseries that we ourselves have never encountered.”
Finally, Spurgeon also helps us see that our words often fail when it comes to helping the depressed. Right theology, trite sayings, and quick fixes are not enough. Depression is complex, with circumstantial, biological, and spiritual contributors. “There is a limit to human power,” said Spurgeon. “God alone can take away the iron when it enters into the soul.” A Christianity that is only prepared for sunshine and positive thinking is a counterfeit Christianity.
This message is especially important for those of us who preach. We should be careful in how we address the complexities of life, and preach with understanding and compassion to those who are hurting.
Thankful for This Book
As a young pastor, I was ill equipped to deal with depression. Years later, I am better acquainted with the weight of suffering that many — indeed, most — carry. But I still need help. I still need to grow in my capacity to care for others, to resist easy answers, and to learn from the suffering that I would rather avoid.
Zack Eswine has served us well by helping us learn from Spurgeon’s sorrows. It’s a book that deserves to be read widely, both by those who suffer with depression, and the rest of us — especially pastors — who want to care for those who suffer.